Hundreds of thousands of Kenyan school children have taken part in the Schools Drama Festival since 1979, the year Annabel Maule sold the theatre house that her parents had built more than 30 years before.
Few if any of those aspiring actors ever heard the name of the madam who turns 100 today and now lives quietly in a Nairobi suburb.
Yet there might never have been a drama festival if the Western theatre hadn’t been brought to Kenya by people like Donovan and Mollie Maule, Annabel’s parents.
They established their first theatre company in 1948, four years before the Kenya National Theatre was launched in 1952.
Not that the performing arts didn’t exist in Kenya before Europeans arrived. In fact, one aspect of the post-colonial literary revolution that took place in the late 1960s when playwrights like Okot p’Bitik and Ngugi wa Thiong’o overturned the English Literature program and replaced it with curriculum that began with orature and oral traditions, where original Kenyan stories, dramas and comedies, are to be found.
Nonetheless, British colonialism embraced its own brand of theatre, the kind the Maule’s were well established in, long before they arrived in Nairobi.
They had also raised both of their children, Annabel and Robin, to be child stars who performed on stage, cinema, television, and radio.
Annabel literally grew up on stage, starting back in the 1930s.
In her book, ‘Theatre Near the Equator’, she writes about how she was in everything from the 1949 film version of Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the 1954 TV version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to shows on BBC’s Sunday Night Theatre and ITV’s Television Playhouse.
She also starred on London’s West End way back in 1950 in ‘His Excellency’.
But once her parents moved to Kenya to start the country’s first repertory theatre, there was a draw to get her to come on stage here. That would take several years.
First, the Maule’s had to get settled and that wasn’t easy. They called their first company Theatre Royal, which was strategically located on Delamere (now Kenyatta) Avenue, which later became Cameo Cinema.
Then they moved to an interim space which they called Studio Theatre, just above the Dominion grocery store on what is now Moi Avenue but back then was Government Road.
It was there that the parents finally got Annabel to come play the lead in ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ by John van Druten.
It was so successful that she went on tour with it wherever they could find theatre clubs in East Africa.
But Annabel’s heart was apparently still in UK, so she went back to work in London until after her parents had successfully fundraised among theatre fans who helped them construct the Donovan Maule Theatre in 1957.
Annabel returned just before Independence in 1962 to perform several leading roles, including Hester in Terrance Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Annabel agreed to return to Kenya to take over running the theatre from her parents.
They were ready to retire, but unwilling to give up what they’d created, a dedicated population of theatre goers who consistently came to see their plays.
From then on until she had to sell the theatre, Annabel did everything from act, direct, produce, and train a slew of young Kenyans in stagecraft.
She also brought in actors from UK since she was devoted to sustaining a high standard of professionalism in her casts.
According to Laurie Slade, brother to the late, great theatre critic Nigel Slade, one of her most memorable achievements was starring as a trio of queens, namely Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife and widow of King Henry II, Queen Victoria in her declining years, and Queen Mary, widow of King George V.
Annabel’s final film role was as Lady Byrne in ‘Out of Africa’. But even after she sold Donovan Maule Theatre, she still performed in several stage productions.
She performed at what was then the French Cultural Centre in the title role of ‘Phaedra’ by the 17th-century playwright, Jean Racine.
She also starred in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ with John Sibi Okumu playing the same driver’s role that Morgan Freeman played in the film.
And since then, up until her retirement, Annabel has played the part of mentor and teacher to a myriad of young Kenyans who she worked with at both Starehe Boys and at Nairobi Theatre Academy.
So, the woman deserves a round of applause for coming this far with Kenyans. Bravo Annabel!